'The Help' and 1960s Feminism

Picking Up Where Kathryn Stockett Left Off

Viola Davis celebrates film version of "The Help" in 2012
Viola Davis celebrates film version of "The Help" in 2012. Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

The Help is set in Mississippi during the early 1960s, when the groundswell of feminism's "second wave" was still building. Kathryn Stockett's novel revolves around events in 1962-1963, before the women's liberation movement, before Betty Friedan and other feminist leaders founded the National Organization for Women, before the media invented the myth of bra-burning. Although The Help is an imperfect depiction of the 1960s and the author stifles the budding feminism of some of her characters, the novel does touch on many issues that were relevant to 1960s feminism.

 

Issues Worth Exploring

  • Skeeter's Rebelliousness/Independence
    A hint of feminism in The Help may be most evident in post-college Skeeter, the young woman who questions restrictions placed on her by society's traditions. Her Southern socialite best friends have conformed to expectations by marrying, having children (or trying to) and even questioning why Skeeter stayed four years at Ole Miss to finish her degree, while they were dropping out of school. Skeeter is still trapped and still trying to fit in, but her inability to do so is partly due to her discomfort with the myth of femininity she is expected to live.

  • White Women and Women of Color
    The so-called second wave of feminism is often criticized for being too white. Betty Friedan's classic The Feminine Mystique and other 1960s feminism accomplishments often came from a limited, white, middle-class point of view. Similar criticisms have been applied to The Help. This is partly because it is written by a white author who narrates in the black voices of Minny and Aibileen, and partly because of the way white voices in the U.S. continually tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement from a limited point of view. Many critics have questioned Kathryn Stockett's ability to speak for "the help." Although the story is about white and black women working together, it is difficult and even dangerous for them to do so. The Help reminds readers that some 1960s feminists were perceived as busily organizing, protesting and advocating without bringing women from other races to the table.
    • Women and Civil Rights
      Which comes first for African-American women, civil rights as blacks or liberation as women? This theme was explored by many black feminist activists, with some theorists responding that it is clearly an unfair question. The either/or dichotomy is part of the problem. No woman should be asked to give up any part of her sense of self.
      • Sisterhood
        The term "sisterhood" became a theme and rallying cry of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. Use of the word was criticized by some, in part because of the racist and classist assumptions ascribed to white women's liberation activists who used the word. The Help emphasizes the solidarity of women in many different situations, often crossing racial boundaries.
      • Marriage
        Despite her independent streak, Skeeter feels the pressure to marry, and nearly does so even when both emotional and logical signs point toward no. The marriages of various characters in the book - Skeeter's parents, her friends, Aibileen, Minny, Stuart's parents, Celia Foote - are nearly all presented with problems that are intertwined with gender power dynamics.
      • Domestic Violence
        Minny faces abuse from her husband Leroy with some degree of resignation. However, author Kathryn Stockett does seem at times to approach it with an ironic awareness of the public attention that would soon come to the issue of domestic violence. Feminist organizations such as NOW addressed domestic violence as one of their priority issues.
      • Women in Publishing
        Elaine Stein, the editor from New York who helps Skeeter, freely states that she will help because she recognizes the need for a woman to have a mentor, a connection or some kind of "in" to the male-dominated publishing industry.
        • Economics, Maids and the "Pink-Collar Ghetto"
          African-American women depicted in The Help had to earn a living as maids in white families' homes. Few other opportunities were available to them - very few. Feminists of the 1960s are often remembered for "getting women out of the home." The truth is, many women did work outside of the home already, but one of the chief concerns of feminists was that women were relegated to lower paying jobs of less prestige with less advancement opportunity and less satisfaction. The term "pink-collar" refers to the "traditional," lower-paid women's jobs.
        • Empowering the "Help": How the Personal Is Political
          The book's main plot is about women telling their stories in a society that has long refused to hear their voices. Whether or not the novel is flawed or the author can properly speak for African-American maids, the idea of women speaking their truth as a path to greater social enlightenment is considered the backbone of feminism.